Next year's national curriculum tests for 1.2 million 11- and 14-year-olds in England could be the last, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, signalled yesterday.
The Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) are likely to be replaced by a new system under which pupils will be tested on maths and English as and when their teachers believe they are ready, with no end-of-year national test for all. The system would be similar to music exams, where children take a graded test when they have reached a certain level of performance.
Speaking on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, Mr Balls acknowledged the marking of this year's SATs tests had been a "fiasco" and stressed that the current system was "not set in stone". Some pupils are still waiting for their results two months after the expiry of the deadline for ETS, the American education company that marks them.
Mr Balls said: "We are looking at a way in which we could assess progress child by child with individual-level tests, where the tests would be chosen in a way which was right for the child, rather than everybody doing the same test on the same day.
"For 2009, we are going to do the same kind of tests as in previous years before the problems with ETS but, for the long term, I am really keen to get this right [and] to listen."
Mr Balls said he wanted to be sure the new system would work before taking a final decision. "It is really important we get this right," he added. "I am not going to rush on making good progress on the single-level tests – to do it before we know it can work."
Initial reaction to the changes from headteachers and unions was hostile. John Dunford, the general-secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that the move could lead to more "teaching to the tests" throughout the year, as classmates were prepared for sitting exams on different dates.
Christine Blower, the acting leader of the National Union of Teachers, said: "We are pleased he has recognised there needs to be massive change as a result of this year's chaos. However, any replacement is going to be skewed by the high-stakes nature of the system, with league tables, targets and government condemnation for those who do not reach the targets."
Under the new system suggested by Mr Balls, tests would still be marked externally. "I think it is really important that we have that kind of objectivity for parents," he explained.
The Government could still publish performance league tables – giving a school-by-school breakdown of the percentage of pupils who reached the required standard in English and maths by the time they left primary school. When ministers first floated the idea of children being tested when teachers say they are ready, it was made clear that every pupil taking part in a pilot scheme would be expected to sit end-of-year SATs as well. Yesterday, though, Mr Balls said that would not be the case if the Government chose the new system.
Mr Balls also revealed that of the 638 schools where 30 per cent of pupils did not get five or more A* to C grade GCSEs, including maths and English, last year, 260 had achieved that target this summer, including 16 of the Government's flagship academies.
These previously "failing" schools no longer face the prospect of closure because of their poor performance, the minister told Andrew Marr.
National tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds were introduced by the Tories in 1988. Teachers in England have long called for SATs to be scrapped because of their "high stakes" nature, and ministers have already relented on the tests for seven-year-olds.
SATs were abolished in 2004 in Wales, where children now sit a "skills test" in numeracy, literacy and problem-solving at the age of 10, backed up by teacher assessments.
In Northern Ireland, 14-year-olds sit optional national tests in English and Irish, maths, science and mental maths.
In Scotland, teachers use national assessments to confirm their judgement of pupils' levels of attainment in English and maths from ages five to 14.